The traditional carillonneur, that is, someone who plays the carillon, lives in a non-standard musical world. A tall tower is an essential part of the instrument. The carillonneur performs from a space high in the tower called a cabin, commanding tons of hardware in the form of fixed brass bells distributed within the tower. In the 15th century Flemish bell-makers discovered how to tune the bells. The player today activates the bells by using a console consisting of a giant wooden keyboard equipped with keys, called batons, corresponding to the black and white keys of a piano, and a set of foot pedals.
Typically, the carillonneur strikes a single key with the fist of one hand or another. Two or more bells can be activated simultaneously by a seasoned carillonneur who knows how to depress two or more keys simultaneously with the fingers. The hand and feet keyboards activate clappers within the bells while the bells themselves remain stationary. The sound of each bell endures until its vibrations die out naturally; this instrument is stately, rather than nimble. Satisfied listeners indicate their pleasure either by applauding or by honking the horns of their cars when they listen from a nearby parking lot.
Robin Austin, Princeton University’s carillonneur, remembers how he felt after his first encounter with the instrument. "When I first went up into the tower, it was like being inside an organ case," he says in a telephone interview from his Philadelphia office. "The tower is the reverberating heart of the instrument. The carillon, like piano and organ, can be sweet, tender, passionate, aggressive, and angry. Playing those instruments is a way to express emotion."
At Princeton University, the carillon is housed in the 173-foot tall Cleveland Tower, which looms over Princeton’s Graduate College. The tower is a memorial to President Grover Cleveland, who lived in Princeton after retiring from public life, and, as a university trustee, was deeply involved in planning the Graduate College, which was dedicated in 1913. The Princeton carillon is among the five largest in the country. Its biggest bell weighs 12 and a half tons. The instrument has 67 keys, giving it a range of five and a half octaves.
To play the Princeton carillon, one mounts 137 tightly-wound stone stairs leading to the cabin. (There is no banister.) Light enters the circular staircase just twice on the upward journey, through slender slits in the tower wall. On a recent Sunday, there was room for five people to gather around the keyboard: two carilloneurs, and three guests. From the cabin, one looks down on the lawns and roofs of the Graduate College buildings. The tower is partially open, permitting the sounds of the instrument to be heard by listeners below. With favorable wind and humidity the carillon is audible on the Nassau Hall lawn about half a mile from the Graduate School. Wire netting on the openings in the tower keeps birds away from the instrument.
University carillonneur Austin gives concerts on the carillon almost every Sunday of the year. During the summer Austin invites guests to perform. The 15th annual summer carillon series ends on Sunday, September 2; four concerts remain. Austin himself opened the series on June 24. Performers in 2007 come from France, Portugal, Japan, and various locations in the United States. (See listings at end for guest carillonneurs.)
"It’s no problem finding players for the summer series," Austin says. "There’s a strong concentration of carillons from central New Jersey to Washington, D.C. Someone can perform in Princeton on Sunday and play the circuit, ending up in Washington, D.C. I fill in the empty spots myself or have an advanced student play."
The carillon makes present day news, as well as being an instrument of the past. On Sunday, July 29, while Princeton’s annual summer carillon series was underway, Naperville, Illinois, dedicated its Millennium Carillon. The Naperville instrument, whose bells weigh about the same as Princeton’s, has 72 keys, rather than Princeton’s 67. The Princeton tower, at 173 feet, is 13 feet highter than Naperville’s; both are taller than the Statue of Liberty, which measures 151 feet. Two performers who have already given their Princeton concerts are slated to perform at Naperville’s celebrations as well. They are Toru Takao of Himeji, Japan, and Jonathan Lehrer of Washington, D.C. For carillonneurs, it’s a small world.
"The carillon repertoire depends on the individual," Austin says. "I have an equal library of original music for carillon and pieces transcribed for the instrument. A lot of carillonneurs write their own arrangements. We borrow and trade. We stay in touch with our colleagues. Most of us are members of the Guild of Carrillonneurs in North America. About 100 of the guild’s 500 members have professional standing, which means that they have played a formal recital."
The route to becoming a carillonneur varies with the location, Austin says. "In Europe there are carillon schools. In the United States people study privately at a university or church or on the few civic carillons. There are a handful of American universities where music majors can major in carillon. At Princeton it’s an extra-curricular activity."
There are about 200 carillons in the United States. Some carillons are played electronically, using MIDI technology, just as an electronic keyboard does. In such instruments a digital device controls the clapper action, which cannot be altered. Therefore, the sound of each bell does not vary.
"Most carillons are played manually," Austin says, "so you can get varieties of expression by varying your touch. That’s how you get the most nuance out of the instrument. For me, an electronic keyboard, even if it’s touch sensitive, is not as appealing as a manual keyboard."
Austin says that carillons have been around hundreds of years. "My idea is that mechanical actions last longer than the electronic ones. At Princeton, the electro-pneumatic system installed on the first carillon in 1927 broke down after a few years." Still Austin recognizes the convenience of an electronically-driven carillon. "Sometimes the carillon player is an organist," he says, "and the player reaches over to a MIDI carillon keyboard at the end of the service, because it’s too much trouble to run up to the tower and play the carillon mechanically."
About half the carillonneurs have a background in piano, and about half in organ, Austin says. "Occasionally, a trombonist becomes a carillonneur. I know one person whose first instrument was carillon. Learning carillon gets very frustrating if you don’t have enough keyboard background. The carillon is kind of awkward and crazy. If you have a good keyboard background, you can focus on how to make good music out of 20 tons of brass."
Austin was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1956 to an electrician father and a mother who, Austin says, "has been a seamstress, hotel manager, and artist. She’s a Renaissance woman. I get the creative genes from her side of the family. They did a lot of crafts and music. My grandfather was a violinist." Austin’s parents are now retired. Austin grew up in Lenni, not far from Media, Pennsylvania.
"As a child I always loved percussion," Austin says, "bells and gongs. My grandmother had gongs. My training was more as a pianist than as an organist. I was trained to be sensitive to dynamics. That helped me with carillon."
Austin earned a bachelor’s degree at West Chester University, Pennsyvania, and a master’s degree from Bryn Mawr College. He began his carillon studies in 1979 at the Washington Memorial National Carillon in Valley Forge. In 1981 he passed his examination recital for the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. The following year he earned a carillonneur’s diploma after studying with Jacques Lannoy, master carillonneur of Douai, at L’Ecole Francais de Carillon.
Austin teaches carillon during the academic year at Princeton. He gives his students group and individual instruction. His classes are open to university faculty, staff, students, and the Princeton community. "The lessons are pretty informal," he says. "We use a practice room in the basement of the Graduate College. The keyboard is an exact replica of the keyboard in the tower. It’s hooked up to a glockenspiel, which does not compensate for the weight of the clappers. They’re heavier in the tower.
"The problems are different upstairs and down," Austin says. "It’s a lot like switching pianos. Every keyboard is different. You’ve learned a whole program on your carillon, and it’s difficult to play on another one. The bells could be lighter or heavier; the action could be heavier or lighter, or the whole instrument could not be as responsive as what you practiced on." (Those interested in looking into the possibility of studying carillon should contact Austin at firstname.lastname@example.org or Penna Rose, Office of Chapel Music, at email@example.com.)
After Austin’s appointment as Princeton’s carillonneur in 1993 he devoted himself to refurbishing the university’s carillon. Given as a gift to the university in 1927 by the Class of 1892, the bells had fallen into disuse after the death of Arthur Bigelow, the university’s first carillonneur, in 1967. An engineer and linguist, Bigelow was working on redesigning and renovating the carillon at the time of his death.
Austin, besides being the present university carillonneur, is executive director of development for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Asked how he balances his work in hospital administration with his work in music, Austin replies, "My job at CHOP is very gratifying and intense. But I get re-invigorated at Princeton. I feel a strong responsibility to pass on the art of playing the carillon. If I can get five or six people interested in my lifetime, I will help keep it going. There are maybe 1,000 carilloneurs out of a world population of six billion."
Carillon Concert by James W. Smith, Sunday, August 12, 1 to 1:30 p.m. Princeton University, Grover Cleveland Tower, Graduate College, Concert on the fifth largest carillon in the country. Free. 609-258-3654.